Blogs > Liberty and Power > Happy Birthday, Herbert Spencer

Apr 27, 2005 9:38 am

Happy Birthday, Herbert Spencer

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Today marks the birthday of Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820---8 December 1903), a thinker whose contributions to philosophy, biology, psychology, sociology, and political theory earned him the status of required reading in most universities a century ago. Today he is largely forgotten -- except in ludicrously inaccurate caricature as a"Social Darwinist" who supposedly advocated letting the poor and weak die off in order to improve the breed. (Nope, he never said it.) These days most of Spencer's works are out of print; no historic plaque marks his London residence (38 Queen's Gardens, just north of Kensington Gardens; I paid my respects there last May), and his grave is overgrown and neglected. Happily, however, interest in Spencer seems to be reviving of late.

Spencer was one of the last stalwarts of classical liberalism, holding up the banner of peace and freedom, and inveighing against regimentation and the régime of status, long after the liberal mainstream had sold out to collectivism and militarist imperialism. After working as a railroad engineer and an editor at The Economist, Spencer devoted the rest of his life to developing, over the course of many volumes, an integrated and systematic theory of life and society. His political philosophy (which I summarize in Herbert Spencer: Libertarian Prophet) anticipated -- and influenced -- much of contemporary libertarian thought. Likewise, his theories of spontaneous social order, pattern-perception, and the self-defeating character of direct utilitarianism anticipate the work of Friedrich Hayek; his evolutionary cosmology anticipates that of astrophysicist David Layzer and chemist Ilya Prigogine; his writings on the relation between statism, militarism, and male supremacy anticipate the insights of radical feminism; and his pre-Darwinian (1852) critique of creationism could have been written yesterday.

One of Spencer's contemporaries described him as a"prophet whose greatest discoveries can only be duly appreciated after two or three centuries." Let’s hope we can accelerate that process a bit. (For a list of online works by and about Spencer, click here.)

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Roderick T. Long - 4/29/2005

You don't say which century, but I can guess. :-)

David Timothy Beito - 4/28/2005

Interestingly I came across several feminists in the U.S. at the turn of the century who quoted Spencer favorably, especially his reference to the liberating effects of industrial society.

Roderick T. Long - 4/28/2005

I have plans to put more Spencer material online at some point; just need to find the time! Yes, all his writings are pub. domain. Most of his writings come in multiple editions with many small and large changes; ideally it will be possible to cross-compare the files.

Kenneth R Gregg - 4/28/2005

Oh yes, and a Happy Birthday Toast to Herbert Spencer! One of the Great Lights of the Libertarian Movement!
Just Ken

Kenneth R Gregg - 4/28/2005

You might want to check with George. He might be amenable to having it online. George has done a number of very good essays on Spencer, including one on the early essays Spencer wrote in "The Nonconformist," which are quite radical (I believe reprinted a few years ago). That essay should certainly be reprinted (I was the editor of the journal that published Ghs's essay in 1980).

Spencer's revised edition of Social Statics (I have a copy) deserves to be reprinted. While there were complaints, particularly from Georgists and English Land Nationalists, that it did not support their favorite nostrum and was more conservative, it was better in several respects.

Most of Spencer's other books (been a collector of various libertaria over the years) are excellent, as well as his collections of essays that have never been reprinted. In one essay, he makes a great market defense of the British measuring system over the metric system of measurement.

His work, Education, is a masterpiece of popular writing. At the time of it's publication, it was probably his best-known books.

I would love to see Liberty Fund or some other group take an interest in putting them online. As far as I know, all of his writings are well past the copyright limitations.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Roderick T. Long - 4/28/2005

Thanks, Jim!!

Roderick T. Long - 4/28/2005

Incidentally, I wish "Will the Real ..." were online! (George's article on Spencer's theory of causality is online -- I link to it from th Molinari page -- but not that one.)

Steven Horwitz - 4/27/2005

And Roderick gives him his props in several places, including one of the links in his main post. So George is not forgotten.

Jeff Riggenbach - 4/27/2005

. . . who has been defending Herbert Spencer in print for more than twenty-five years. His article "Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?" appeared in The Libertarian Review for December 1978 -- the first article setting the record straight on Spencer to appear in a popular (as opposed to a scholarly) publication. It was reprinted in Smith's 1991 book Atheism, Ayn Rand, & Other Heresies.

James Otteson - 4/27/2005

Roderick Long has done more than perhaps anyone else in recent memory to defend the name and work of Herbert Spencer. Spencer's work has been unjustly maligned for decades, and people who do not read him, or do not read him charitably, continue to caricature and misrepresent him. I think Spencer is one of the great patron saints of political philosophy, not least because he was one of the first to see that evolutionary biology and classical liberalism are friends and not foes. So I take my hat off not only to Spencer, but also to Roderick for tirelessly fighting this good fight.